- Monday, Dec. 4, 2017
The human costs of an unjust bail system that exclusively impacts low-income communities, and disproportionately people of color, was brought home in stark terms in a new seven-minute film produced by Variable for the Bronx Freedom Fund. The film was directed by Variable’s Kevan Funk.
In a highly stylized, cinematic fashion, “The Bail Project” tells the story of Ramel Edwards, mostly through his own words. Trying to intervene in a friend’s being arrested for drinking in public, he was caught up in a situation that quickly escalated, resulting in his being charged with resisting arrest, with bail set at $500.
Explaining that in his hard-pressed Bronx neighborhood “that’s rent money,” Edwards was unable to make bail and was jailed for a week until the Bronx Freedom Fund paid his bail. His case crawled through the New York City court system for two years – time that he would have spent behind bars, cut off from his family and community – only for the charges to be dismissed.
To view the film at Vimeo, go to: https://vimeo.com/244729509
Variable produced the film pro bono for the Bronx Freedom Fund (www.thebronxfreedomfund.org), a community-based bail fund that works in collaboration with public defender offices like The Bronx Defenders to post bail for low-income New Yorkers who would otherwise be forced to stay in jail while awaiting their day in court. The Bronx Freedom Fund is now being scaled to a national level in the form of “The Bail Project” (www.bailproject.org), which plans to open 40 sites across high-need jurisdictions in US and secure the release of up to 160,000 low-income Americans from pretrial incarcerations.
Funk’s visual approach to Edward’s story combines footage of him with stylized sequences that conjure up a hellish experience told from his perspective. Scenes are shot in slow-motion, and some in reverse, to suggest his desire to turn back time to before this nightmare fell on him. His account is punctuated by darkly-colored scenes meant to suggest his childhood, intercut with current footage of him with his young daughter. Often he’s seen in silent thought, in bare rooms bathed in foreboding light, while his riveting narration plays in the background. “Justice is supposed to be blind, that’s how I see it,” he says towards the end of the short, alluding to the fact that the current system makes the presumption of innocence something that must be purchased.
Edited by Chris Catanach of Cartel, who worked closely with Funk to carefully craft the story, the film was given a moody and pensive color grading at Company 3 by Jamie O’Bradovitch. It includes an evocative original music trace composed by Ben Fox, with sound design from White Hart Post’s Matt Drake.
“Variable always has its eyes out for powerful stories in support of social causes and non-profits we believe in,” says Variable Partner and Executive Producer Tyler Ginter. “Personal work has always been an important pillar for us, but when it can be attached to a cause we believe in like the Bronx Freedom Fund, we get all the more excited about making it happen.”
Alex Friedman, Variable’s Head of Production, produced “The Bail Project.” He was doubly motivated to tackle this project, having both a personal connection to the Bronx Freedom Fund via a family member who previously worked with the nonprofit as well as his own sense of frustration over the devastating impact of cash bail policies, based on experiences like that of Kalief Browder.
“When I read the story in the New York Times about Kalief – a young kid who committed suicide after being incarcerated on Rikers Island pre-trial for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack, only to have his case dismissed – I was reminded of how much impact an organization like the Bronx Freedom Fund can make with so few resources,” Friedman says. “I brought the idea of making a film to Kevan, and it immediately resonated with him especially if we could tell a single person’s story. We reached out to Ezra Ritchin of The Bail Project, who was extremely receptive to the idea and who connected us with Ramel.”
Funk’s documentary work made him a natural candidate to take on this task. “He comes from a narrative film background and is an incredible storyteller.” Friedman explains. “He's also extremely passionate about criminal and social justice issues. Once we met Ramel in person, it became clear that we had to do everything we could to tell his story. He speaks with conviction about the injustices of the system and the importance of organizations like The Bronx Freedom Fund and now The Bail Project. We knew right away we had to tell his story on film.”
Initial photography took place last winter, with additional footage captured in the spring. For those who worked on the film, the experience was something of a revelation, Funk says. “Ramel has such a presence and kindness about him, I think everyone was genuinely moved. We were all proud to be telling his story and the story of the Bronx Freedom Fund. It made for an incredibly positive atmosphere on set. It was a reminder that, at every crew position, we all got into filmmaking to tell great stories. And no matter how long we've been doing it, we still get inspired when we have the opportunity to share compelling narratives like this one.”
Ginter says he and his colleagues at Variable hope to see real reform come from The Bail Project’s expansion, and if the film helps further that movement, all the better. Bail reform has become a national political issue, with people as disparate as US Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) partnering to propose solutions. A bigger issue is often one of perception, Ginter adds.
“One of the hardest parts of bail reform specifically, and criminal justice reform in general, is to help people understand that we’re talking about human beings, their livelihoods and families here, and the fundamental protection that is the presumption of innocence,” Ginter says. “Many are conditioned to see anyone who is swept into the system as a ‘criminal.’ They forget that everyone, regardless of race or income, should be presumed innocent, and treated as such, until proven otherwise in a court. When you hear Ramel tell his story and humanize this issue for his audience, it’s impossible to sit back and think it’s okay to let these injustices continue.”
“The Bail Project” Screenwork Credits
Client: The Bronx Freedom Fund
Project Director: Ezra Ritchin
Production Company: Variable
Director: Kevan Funk, Cinematographer: Peter Hadfield, Producer: Alex Friedman, Executive Producer: Tyler Ginter, Production Supervisor: Paige Demarco, Production Coordinator: Rocco Campanelli, 1st AC: Oliver Lanzenberg, DIT: Jeff Levine, Gaffer: Brad Burke, Key Grip: Seth Dean, Sound: Corey Poindexter, Production Designer: Curtis Oliveira, Art PA: Syd Richardson, Art PA: Jack De Sousa, PA: Johnny Guevara, PA: Julius Moreno
Editor: Chris Catanach, Post Producer: Greer Bratschie, Post Executive Producer: Lauren Bleiweiss
Color: Company 3
Colorist: Jaime O’Bradovich, Color Producer: Kate Aspell
Sound Design/Mix: Matt Drake @ White Hart Post
Original Score: Ben Fox
Casting: Nina Day Casting
Featuring Ramel Edwards
Supporting Cast: Young Ramel: Taj Blain, Ramel's Aunt: Donna Glaesner, Neighborhood Kid #1 Ariana Bantoe, Neighborhood Kid #2 Da'jour Jones, Neighborhood Kid #3 Jacquel Gilmore